Do Or Die

A Schneider Trophy Aftermath

To understand what follows it is necessary to consider these seaplane races as they led up to the ultimate outcome. International contests of considerable importance and prestige, the eyes not only of the competing nations but of the Press and the public at large were on races (actually, time-trials) between what were then the fastest machines imaginable. Yet after Government funds were unavailable it was only the patriotic generosity of Lady Houston that enabled Great Britain to enter for the last of these remarkable events and secure the coveted Schneider Trophy in perpetuity.

So national prestige was very much at stake when the final race started at Ryde, Isle of Wight, over CaIshot Water, on September 13 1931. Jacques Schneider had the foresight to give his Trophy for the good of seaplane development and the first race was held in 1913 at Monaco and won by a Deperdussin, at 61mph.

Between the wars the importance of the race escalated and in recent memory, as the Climax drew near, it was recalled that between 1919 and 1929, Italy had won four times, America twice, and Great Britain three times — there were gaps in the years when these expensive contests took place — the vital aspect being that we had won two races consecutively and to do so again meant that the Schneider Trophy would be ours to keep, as no further contests were intended.

Our 1931 challenge came with the splendid Supermarine S6B, powered with the 2350hp supercharged V12 Rolls-Royce “R” racing engine — which was to be developed into the R-R Merlins for the Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes that won for Britain the deadly aerial battle which, if lost, would have given Germany access to these islands as never before… The S6Bs were possible only became the 100% fervent-nationalist Lady Houston put up the finance and Sir Henry Royce was persuaded to make an engine suitable for them.

So was the entry formed for that last high-speed gamble. One noted aviation historian has said “To win the Schneider contest was an honour without parallel and to win the final race and secure the Trophy would be an historic achievement”. To defend their former reputation Fiat built the Macchi Castoldi MC72, described as “the ultimate in racing float-plane design”. France pinned her faith on the Bernard HV220, and Germany readied a Dornier flying-boat.

The preparations incurred some drama — such as messages flashed on Derby cinema screens asking skilled gear-cutters to return at once to the R-R factory, when an engine on test had again blown up, or the Mayor of that town requesting tolerance from the householders should their nights be disturbed by the roar of an “R” engine on full-song, as British prestige could suffer if the tests did not proceed continuously… It was a time of intense development work at Derby, with Air Commodore Rodney Banks finding the right fuel and Wellworthy piston-rings that would reduce excessive oil-consumption etc, with many set-backs before reliability was achieved. The aim was a one-hour run at full power. A Rolls-Royce Phantom lorry stood by to rush engines and spares between Calshot and Derby. (I gave a full account in MOTOR SPORT of how the Rolls-Royce “R”-type engine was perfected during the early days of the war, when Britain needed some morale-boosting — being careful, as I was working for the Air Ministry, not to divulge secrets of the latest Merlins, not wishing to be carted oft to the Tower!)

Back to 1931. Excitement increased as race-day grew near. The public lined the beaches adjoining the course rows and rows deep, right down to the water’s edge. Boats moored close to the shore served as grandstands and the BBC broadcast, from 2LO, the roar of the engine as the S6B flew past (I didn’t get to the race but donned headphones to listen to it. . .). The pilots of the RAF High-Speed Flight were the heroes of this adventurous occasion. In fact, it was rather a fiasco. The race had been fought out by four machines in 1913, six in 1914, four in 1919, a loner in 1920, three in 1921, four in 1922, four again in 1923, five in 1925, six in 1926, the same number in 1927 and 1929. But in 1931, only one S6B flew the required distance, so won, at 340.08mph, flown by Flt LI J N Boothman. He had been racing for 38min 22sec over the 47-mile course, keeping a careful eye on water temperature, which implied throttling-back to 3100rpm but experiencing, it was said, g-force vision black-out at the turns.

R J Mitchell, designer of the S6B (and later the Spitfires), and Sir Henry Royce had achieved what had been required of them. In later days it could be said that “The Battle of Waterloo may or may not have been won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the Battle of Britain was definitely decided over Calshot Water. . .” (Apologies if you have heard this once or twice before… !).

The reason why only one British seaplane was needed to clinch the final Trophy victory was because the challengers had all withdrawn. So our one S6B sufficed, although the S6A and the second S6B were held in readiness should John Boothman’s speed be below that required to claim the race. The Italians, once so confident, had had miserable setbacks. Britain having won so easily, salt was rubbed into sore places when it was decided to let Flt Lt G H Stainforth go for the Air Speed Record with the second S6B, which was given a sprint “R”-type engine boosted to 2600bhp at 3200rpm. With 100 gallons of fuel and 15 of oil the take-off took 43sec, and diving into the 3km time-trap at 420mph (3400rpm) Stainforth came out of it at 406mph, the record raised to 379.05mph, later improved to 407 50mph — the car LSR then stood at 246.04mph. It had taken only 27 minutes in the air, during which Banks’s special fuel-brew was used-up at the rate of about 3 1/2 gallons a minute, leaving only 8 3/4 gallons in the tanks, For Italy, it was now a matter of do or die…

What the Italians decided to do was to attack the new British absolute speed record. They had first to overcome the defects in the Macchi MC72, If had the most astonishing AS6 engine. Fiat had built some enormous LSR cars and had now devised a 51.1-litre V24-cylinder engine consisting of two completely independent 12-cylinder AS5 power-units bolted together but otherwise connected only through the throttle controls. The two crankshafts drove co-axial propeller shafts. A centrifugal supercharger was driven from the rear ASS section of this remarkable engine, and fed both parts of the assembly, in conjunction with a 7:1cr. The overall length was lift and the common crankcase was mounted in the airframe on six rubber-damped brackets on each side. Each crankshaft drove reduction gears for the two concentric shafts, which ran forward within the vee of the front cylinder bank to drive the contra-rotating propellers.

Each steel cylinder could be removed separately. The engine had two overhead camshafts operating a total of 96 valves, and the ignition system incorporated complex h t leads to the 48 sparking-plugs. Yet this enormous power-unit weighed only 2045lb. Eventually 3100bhp was extracted from it, but there were problems with control and carburation, etc. (One recalls similar shortcomings with two engines fed from one remote compressor in the LSR Sunbeam “Silver Bullet”). One Macchi had exploded and another had dived into a lake, killing Lt Bellini and Capt Monti, hence the Fiat race withdrawal. The French entries were also unsuitable and no more was heard of the German Dornier. The S6B’s tricky take-off in practice had cost the life of the British pilot LA J Brinton, RN.

It took time and our Air Commodore Rod Banks to set up for Fiat a proper test-unit and a new fuel mix to suit the temperamental AS6 engine. But by 1933 Warrant Officer Agello put the ASR figure up to 423.822mph, and the following year he improved this to 440.681mph. (At the time the car LSR stood at 292.46mph ) It was a piston marine aircraft record which has never been broken. Even so, there were still problems and the luckless pilot, having risked his life on such a high-speed flight, and landed, had hastily to get out and stand on a float until the rescue launch arrived, to prevent the Macchi porpoising… There is a personal sequel to this. In 1969 I went to Italy to describe the Fiat works for MOTOR SPORT. One was reminded immediately of the sheer might and influence of this great company. The hotel we stayed in was Fiat’s, like the coffee we drank and the newspaper we were reading, and the new buildings without were mostly being built by Fiat. The bank for travellers-cheques had a Fiat connection. Outside, almost every vehicle was a Fiat car, taxi or truck and the trains of Fiat carriages were drawn by Fiat locomotives. And at the wonderful Centro Stonco Museum (Fiat’s of course) to which Alfred Woolf, the then very-efficient British Fiat PRO took me, among the full-size and scale-model exhibits, I came upon an AS6 aero-engine. The curator seemed pleased I had recognised it. Then, as we inspected it, came a distant droning, turning into a roar. I was asked to turn round and there, on a video-screen, was a sound film of Agello’s speed record flight, even to him standing on a float after it, waiting to be picked up Wonderful, Fiat… ! Later, when I was due to return home, the flight was held because a VIP (me!) who had been a Fiat guest would be a trifle late; wonderful Fiat, I thought again, as the Alitalia DC9 finally got clearance for take-off for Heathrow.

But what I really wanted to remind you of was the ingenious AS6 engine, designed by Tranquillo Zerbi, who was also responsible for some of the best Fiat production cars and two of its 1 1/2-litre racing cars, the Tipo 451 two-stroke and the twin six, geared-crankshafts 187bhp Tipo 806, with one of which Pietro Bordino won the 1927 GP of Milan. W B